Proud2Bme | Fashioning Change: An Interview with Model-Turned-Activist Nikki DuBose

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Fashioning Change: An Interview with Model-Turned-Activist Nikki DuBose

By Pooja Patel--Escaping and conquering adversity is hard enough, but working towards eliminating the same adversity for others seems to be the work of heroes.

Somehow, superhero Nikki DuBose found a way to do both. After an early start as a model at the tender age of 15, DuBose faced body shaming, an eating disorder and drug and alcohol abuse, all propagated by the hands of the fashion industry.

After years of mental health struggles and family tragedy, DuBose decided that enough was enough—and she walked away from the industry that she had worked in for the majority of her life. After leaving the modeling industry, DuBose made it her mission to become an eating disorder prevention activist, and she has done a wonderful job.

She has been involved in social media efforts and recent California legislation calling for strict health requirements for models. Luckily, Proud2Bme was able to catch up with DuBose. See what she has to say below about the fashion industry, mental health and legislation!

Trigger warning: Descriptions of eating disordered behavior, substance abuse and sexual assault. 

Pooja Patel: You started modeling at a somewhat young age--how do you think the industry affected the way you thought about beauty standards?

Nikki DuBose: I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and down the street from where I worked at a bakery was a prominent modeling school. I was 15 at the time, and as a result of my traumatic childhood, I wanted badly to be accepted, so I walked in there by myself. The owner of the school and her assistant looked me up and down, measured me and asked me to lose weight—as well as to bring $500 for the runway training classes. The day of the first class I had to walk down the makeshift runway in front of everyone else and at the end of my turn the teacher lifted up my shirt and asked, “What kind of exercises do you do?” I could feel my cheeks turning hot and I didn’t know what to say.

She patted my stomach and pointed to the other girls who were all wearing tummy-bearing shirts and said, “See their stomachs? Go home and do crunches. You need to have a stomach like theirs.” That was one of my first public experiences with bullying in the industry. I had already been struggling with bulimia for years by that point, as well as other mental health conditions like depression, body dysmorphic disorder, PTSD and so on, so their comments triggered my destructive behaviors behind closed doors. Yet I was certain that if I could only “win” their approval and the approval of the beauty industry, then I could finally feel good enough for myself and my family. 

Because I had been sexually victimized as a child and physically abused, I never got the chance to understand that I was born worthy and beautiful because of my soul—I spent the rest of my life trying to seek validation from the modeling industry and in all the wrong places. As I became a professional model and saw my career soar later on, I used the fact that “Oh, my face is on the cover of this magazine or billboard, or I can fit into this size” to validate my worth.

PP: What did you see in the fashion industry that prompted you to leave the profession?

NDB: All sorts of things. If you can think of it, I saw it and/or experienced it myself. Remember, I had addictions and serious mental health issues so there was that complex aspect too, and then I was involved in this business that was poorly regulated—it just exacerbated my problems. There were parties every day, with people that I worked with, and then there were the drugs and alcohol—they came like candy and I had a drug and alcohol addiction on and off. Thankfully I went through twelve-step and have been clean and sober for  more than four years and have been in strong recovery from my eating disorder for almost three years, but at the time it was like living in a candy store for addicts.

There were no rules except one—be the best at any cost. And that was where I found myself competing with every girl, so I couldn’t really make genuine friends with anyone. I couldn’t even be my own friend. I hated myself and the longer I was in the business I more I destroyed myself. My body dysmorphic disorder was constantly triggered by the comments of my agents, clients, directors of my agencies and others. As I watched photographers Photoshop my body right in front of my face and then laugh about it like I didn’t even exist, it ate away at my soul.

And then there was the pressure to sleep around to get better bookings, which triggered the PTSD from the sexual abuse from my childhood. I felt pressured to play the sexual games until one day when I was raped by a photographer. When I confronted the director of my agency, I was shot down and made to feel like nothing had ever happened, as usually happens with rape. There are some other really horrible, life-changing things that went on, but I explain them and all of these experiences in my upcoming memoir, Washed Away: From Darkness to Light.

Then towards the height of my career, when I was at my lowest weight and suffering with anorexia nervosa, the agencies were promoting me more than ever and I was working like crazy. On a shoot one day, the stylist was putting lotion on my arms and gasped when he realized that they were literally just bones. However, he laughed and said, “Oh, it’s alright darling. All the supermodels have arms like that!” And he kept right on working.

So I was constantly living in this illusion, this confusion. Because my mind was messed up, I didn’t know what to do and how I really looked. BDD, addictions and eating disorders completely change your brain chemistry and, on top of that, when you are in this strict environment that’s not healthy, it can be a deadly combination.

I had to get out because I kept getting sicker and sicker—and what finally happened is that my mom died from alcoholism. (Earlier on in her life she had also struggled with an eating disorder and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and dissociative identity disorder.) When that happened, I took a long, hard look at my life and my career, which was my “identity,” and made a life-altering choice to walk away from it all. I chose self-love and recovery.

PP: How do you think legislation like the bill proposed in California will aid in the health and wellbeing of models?

NDB: In my opinion—and I know I’m not alone when I say this—the legislation is something that the industry has needed from the beginning. From my personal experience being in the business, it is poorly regulated and that creates an environment that can trigger mental health issues like eating disorders in models. Any time you have strict expectations placed on males and females, like in the modeling industry, or let’s say in ballet or even the military (where, according to the EDC, 97.5% of active duty female Marines  meet the criteria for an eating disorder), this allows disordered behaviors to manifest. So with bill AB-2539, there will be regulation, finally! Current research shows that 40% of models may be suffering from some sort of an eating disorder and the proposed legislation will make it mandatory that models get periodic health-checkups, nutrition consultation and appropriate medical testing as needed.

Also, the bill will require the modeling agencies to be licensed by the California Labor Commissioner and the models will be the employees of the modeling agency instead of independent contractors. Because models are currently independent contractors, the agencies can get away with a whole lot of nonsense (such as sexual harassment, bullying, not paying the models, asking them to lose weight and withholding work until they lose weight) and the models have little rights and protection. Under the bill the modeling agencies are required to keep records and may be fined if they hire models who do not have a current physician’s certificate.

PP: How do you think legislation like the bill proposed in California will eventually affect body positivity?

NDB: Everything comes full circle. Everything. If we can change the way the standards are in the modeling industry, this will in turn have a greater impact on society. Think about it—we see an incredible amount of advertisements every day. If models are able to be healthier, feel healthier and work in an environment that look after their mental, emotional and physical health as well as promotes their labor rights, they will in turn begin to see themselves as more than just an “image.” They will begin to understand that they are role models. Beauty begins within—it is comprised of the body, mind and spirit, and when the models are truly being taken care of, their healthier images will transpire globally.  

PP: In addition to this great piece of legislation, what other pivotal steps do you think would be helpful for the government to take?

NDB: I’m very interested in education and I think the government could work with the agencies to enforce some type of educational program, which I’d love to work with them on. Models and agents need to be educated about mental health. Models also need resources—printed materials and resources online, so that if they are struggling or are concerned about someone who is, they know where to go. I think every agency should have resources available.

Agents are working with males and females every day, and therefore need to be educated about the mental health issues that often affect them, such as eating disorders. I remember I had a conversation one day with one of my agents and opened up to her that I had had bulimia for a long time. She didn’t know what that was and therefore didn’t know how to help me; it wasn’t her fault, it was just a lack of education.  

PP: As a model-turned-activist what are your biggest goals in regards to ED awareness?

NDB: I want the public to become properly educated about eating disorders. There are so many misconceptions and this started back when the media grabbed hold of Karen Carpenter’s case. Eating disorders affect everyone, at all ages and stages of life. In regards to the modeling business and eating disorders I want the public to learn that modeling is not a glamorous business and neither are eating disorders. So please, stop making fun of both of them. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychological illness. Models do not get into the business and then get to this abnormally small size because they are vain. The modeling industry is full of so much pressure to look and be a certain way—once you get into it you are under so much scrutiny that, after a while, you mold your body to please your agents, clients and casting directors.

Before you know it, and whether or not you are already struggling with a mental health condition, you can develop an eating disorder.  Another thing I want to point out is that while the industry’s recent shift into body diversity is wonderful and we need more of it, it does nothing to educate the public about eating disorders. At any size, you could be suffering in silence from a mental health condition. This is where my concern lies.

Finally, I want us to start a soul revolution—there is so much emphasis placed on the outer appearance and I truly believe that we are our souls. If we paid more attention to the value that our souls have and carried that across in advertisements, I think that more people would feel good about themselves and there would be less pressure to fit into a certain mold. When you focus on your inner worth, there is nothing to compare yourself to, thus the desire to engage in disordered behaviors goes away.

PP: Who is your biggest body positive hero?

NDB: If you would have asked me this a few years ago, I would have thought about it a long time and told you some celebrity or another. But now, I’m so comfortable with myself and proud of myself for everything that I’ve overcome in my life that I would have to say simply, I am my biggest hero! And I think that if we can all get to that place where we look up to ourselves and love ourselves in a healthy way, it such a freeing place to be at.

PP: As someone who has struggled with ED, what advice would you give to other young people currently struggling?

NDB: First of all, give yourself a hug and know that you are loved. We are so hard on ourselves! Next, never ever, ever give up! Literally I was the queen of falling down and didn’t have that guidance growing up, so I never knew what in the world I was doing or how to live my life. As long as you keep trying, you’re doing the right thing.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. There is always someone out there who is willing to listen and help you. The thing with EDs and mental health conditions in general is that they want to isolate you—it’s their nature. But the world is full of people just like you and they DO understand. Reach out, be patient with yourself, recovery takes time and you are worth all the time and recovery in the world. Full recovery IS possible!

For recovery resources and treatment options, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 800-931-2237.

If you are struggling with a substance use disorder, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357) for referrals to local treatment facilities and support groups.

Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

About the blogger: Pooja Patel studies neuroscience and philosophy at Barnard College, Columbia University. She does research at a CU neurobiology laboratory, which emphasizes anticipation behaviors, circadian rhythms and biology. She has interned off and on at the National Eating Disorders Association for about two years. Pooja enjoys reading, dancing, watching mindless TV and keeping up with fashion trends.

Also by Pooja: 

Dress Codes Are Body-Shaming and Sexist

Lauren Conrad Bans "Skinny"

Lena Dunham and the Body-Positive Workout Selfie

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